England: Five talking points from Steve Borthwick’s 36-man squad as Premiership form rewarded

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

After Steve Borthwick named his first squad as England head coach, Planet Rugby’s James While delves into the big selection debates.

Leadership

Today’s press conference at Twickenham saw the new dawn of Borthwick’s era start in earnest and it was clear from the first moment that a changed narrative and management style is at the heart of his planning.

Collective words – us, we, our – were repeated in his dialogue. Player leadership and empowerment, emotional connection and clarity were his key themes and his focus on England’s leadership group of Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes and Ellis Genge was clear.

His illustrious predecessor Eddie Jones was a singular point of focus at every press conference. Detail about Eddie’s way and him preparing his players were a continued soundtrack, possibly to the point of accusations of a detail-obsessed directive management style, which is a proven but arguably archaic method in a high performance environment.

In Borthwick’s world, clarity, fight and internal leadership are the buzzwords, classic undertones of what is known as a commitment culture, where the leaders set the vision and the players deliver with mutual trust and ownership to succeed. It is a far more modernistic approach and one that is considered by many to produce greater decision-making and leadership on pitch.

In short, the head coach’s style has gone from all about me to all about them – only time will tell which method works better.

Premiership style

It’s worth, at this point, noting that Borthwick’s changes to Jones’ last 36-man squad were limited to five, with Jack Willis allowed due to the Wasps situation, so this pick was far from a clean sheet of paper.

Nick Easter has written in his Planet Rugby columns recently that the Premiership style of 2023 isn’t what one would consider the traditional style of English rugby of days gone by.

Speed, skill and attack have usurped power, force and strength as the watchwords. Teams habitually play in eight or 10-try matches and the rugby has been open, flowing and exciting. There’s a variety of reasons for this; from the lack of relegation to the number of artificial pitches available, but one of the key considerations is England don’t quite have the size of player available to them now that they had in years gone by so playing a pure physical style perhaps isn’t realistic.

Borthwick has taken this message to heart in his selections. Every player, with the possible exceptions of a couple of props, is eternally comfortable playing a wide and fast game with a lot of handling in it. Marginal selections like those of Bevan Rodd and Mako Vunipola see agility and mobility selected over pure scrummage power, and the back-row sees the selection of some really pacey runners, with an emphasis on an ability to make yards into contact, over and above lineout size and mauling power.

The head coach said at the press conference: “I said to the players that I wanted to bring their strengths onto the field. And that’s what you want as a player, I want them to bring all of themselves. Now, the job I’ve got is to encourage them to come in and to create an environment that allows them to bring those strengths onto the field, the training field and the match field, so we see the very best of them.”

In detail – backs

Looking at the squad and taking into consideration Borthwick’s stated aims of playing a Premiership style, a number of features stand out.

Gone are the great servants of English wing play, Jack Nowell and Jonny May, seasoned Test players but now perhaps lacking the cutting edge of the likes of Ollie Hassell-Collins and Cadan Murley. Pace and fight are key components of both players’ skills and in Murley, there’s a winger who has the rare ability of a sidestep off either foot.

The centres are as expected but are of course informed by who Borthwick chooses to play at 10. Throughout his conversations today, both he and Kevin Sinfield consistently referred to Farrell as a fly-half, despite the performance of Marcus Smith yesterday. But in Joe Marchant and Dan Kelly, he has natural back up to Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi, with the Swiss Army knife of Elliot Daly in support. In short, the selections are straightforward, exactly picked on form and undoubtedly he’s chosen the best options available.

Sinfield was at pains to point out that George Ford is still in their minds, but Fin Smith’s maturity saw him there on merit at this moment in time, describing the Saint’s mental strength in adversity as a key component of his make up.

At scrum-half, the key decision was one between Alex Mitchell or Raffi Quirke and it’s Mitchell’s spikey industry that has seen him win the final place. He might not have the passing accuracy of others, but when it comes to challenging the fringes, there’s none better and he offers an abrasive counterpoint to the silky skills of Ben Youngs and Jack van Poortvliet.

In detail – forwards

One of the biggest surprises in this squad is the retention of Vunipola and Rodd over the well-publicised claims of Joe Marler and Val Rapava-Ruskin. Given Vunipola’s complete incompetence in any form of rugby scrum and Rodd’s continued binding and scrummage height issues, these picks clearly state that running rugby is at the core of what England want to do over and above scrummaging. For many, the omission of Rapava-Ruskin is a real surprise, given the ridiculous form of the Gloucester prop.

The recall of Nick Isiekwe is no big surprise given that his lineout work is amongst the best in the Premiership plus he, alongside Ollie Chessum and Courtney Lawes, can play in either row in the back five, but his selection at the expense of the outstanding David Ribbans is a very tough call on the big Saint.

In the back-row, a litany of players could have been picked: Tom Pearson, Ted Hill, Tom Willis, Lewis Ludlow and more can all feel disappointed at their omission. Hill in particular would have offered a different style of blindside over the other picks but his time may still yet come.

AOB

In conversation, Sinfield said that there were a number of key players that were obvious picks had they been fit and, from that, we can draw that Tom Curry, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ford were the three main characters missing from today’s cast. Sinfield couldn’t confirm if those players would remain around the squad but saw the merit in that approach for the future, with an expectation of clarity around England announcing a revised and wider 45-man EPS in time.

The coaches went on to say that there had been a number of very close calls, and that this squad would change as all do according to form and fitness.

What did come across loud and clear was the belief in the players selected, and the absolute clarity of their plan. With Scotland ahead of them in 19 days time, a banana skin in recent times for England, the clear plan of pace and width is an interesting approach as Twickenham sees the return of a side that delivered a much better set of results in November than they did.

As always, one cannot judge a squad or its intent until the match is played, but there’s no doubt that this selection is consistent, focused and has a clarity of plan behind that is obvious to see, exactly as Borthwick promised when he took the job.

READ MORE: Five uncapped players in Steve Borthwick’s first squad as Elliot Daly and Dan Cole handed recalls

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